Welcome to a special Q&A with Robert Galbraith to celebrate the release of The Ink Black Heart.
How to watch the interactive Q&A
Direct the course of the Q&A by selecting questions you’d like to hear answers to.
- There are nine topics in total and three different questions within each topic
- Select the question that interests you from the three choices available
- Once you’ve heard the answer you can ‘Go back and choose a different question’ from the same topic
- Or you can click ‘Continue through the Q&A’ to move on to the next topic
- At the end of the nine topics you can start the Q&A again to select different questions
- Subtitles can be switched on
The Ink Black Heart is out now
Read a transcript of the Q&A with Robert Galbraith
The Ink Black Heart
I see this as a novel about disconnection. And people feeling disconnected in real life. And exploring what they find online as a way of connecting. But – it – I don’t want to give too much away. But the central theme of the book is anomie, which is a state of lacking normal social or moral norms.
And – so, yeah, it’s really an exploration of that. It is a very sort of modern malaise. Although the term anomie has been around for a long, long time and it really – the term arose through industrialisation. People losing meaning in their daily lives and – and feeling that they themselves were not really part of society. Not really part of a whole. So, yeah. So, it’s a big theme. But it is explored in a very sort of contemporary way.
In an online world suspects are harder to identify. How do Strike and Robin handle this new challenge?
So, I wanted to – with each of the Strike books I want to do something very different plot wise. And the last book, book five, was a cold case. And this time I wanted to do something very contemporary and even though it – the book is actually set in 2015 – in terms of the online world I think it is fairly true what is still happening now with small differences. So, obviously it is the first investigation that they have done where the internet is this important.
And initially they refuse to take the case because they don’t really do cyber investigation. But when it becomes clear that a bit of old school detection is needed, then they need to infiltrate a certain online world. Which they do successfully. And they also observe real life suspects. So, it is a combination of footwork and cyber investigation in the end.
So, anomie is a state of lacking social or moral norms and within the book Anomie is the online pseudonym of what appears to be a super fan turned persecutor. And they are completely anonymous, there is no online explanation of who they are. They have been very careful in hiding who they are. And the case starts when the woman who is being persecuted, who was an animator, comes to the agency and says, I need to know who this person is. They are making my life an absolute misery.
I think we see more of Strike’s vulnerability, really, in this book. His physical challenges are becoming greater. He – he really does need to make some changes. But he doesn’t in this book with predictably dire consequences. And this world, this sort of online world and the world of social media, is not something he is particularly familiar with. He’s 40. He will have heard of Twitter, but he won’t really – he is not interested in it. So, he doesn’t fully understand what the appeal is. So, it’s – for him it’s a very new world. And I think that it’s one that Robin’s far more familiar with. She is 10 years younger and has – interacted with these things a little more than he – than he does. So, she has more of a feel for what they are dealing with in the beginning.
So, Strike’s romantic past causes difficulties for the agency. It’s something that Robin isn’t overly happy about, obviously. Because she too has built this agency. I can’t give too much away – but I have – I would say that he has – yes, he has to face something down that he has probably been avoiding doing for quite a long time.
Strike and Robin really agreed what they wanted in the future in book four. They wanted – they want to make this business a success. Maybe make it the best in London. That’s their ambition – in The Ink Black Heart, you start to see what that means. What are the consequences of someone becoming now fairly well-known while really needing anonymity for their job?
So, I think anonymity is something of a theme in this book too. Strike doesn’t want too much exposure. Meanwhile you have the antagonist for whom they are searching, who does want exposure while maintaining anonymity. They are very pleased with the effect they are having online. And on the creators of the animation that they purport to love. But they don’t want to be exposed. So, there is a sort of balance between Strike’s position and Anomie’s position in the book.
I see this as the real sort of coming-of-age novel for Robin, in that not purely she turns 30 in the very first chapter. So, we see Strike and Robin celebrating Robin’s 30th birthday. But at this point she has learned enough on the job, and she takes charge of things in a way that she has never really done before. And what I love about writing that relationship is this evolution. So, obviously she started as a total neophyte, she knew really nothing about the world of detection but was fascinated by it and wanted to learn.
And Strike – which is one of the nice things about this occasionally infuriating man – is, he’s very happy for her to do that. You know, he’s – he’s not – he doesn’t feel threatened by that. Which – which is one of the things I like about him. Though he would annoy me in other ways. Yeah, Robin, certainly, she takes some physical risks in this book that her creator would absolutely not take, but she’s – she’s physically brave in this book. Particularly in this book. And she – she makes some key decisions.
We’ve seen Robin develop and mature throughout the series. How has this framed her perceptions of what society expects of her?
Well, there is a – there is a sort of close relationship between the last book and this book in terms of Robin. In the last book we saw her get divorced. And I explored in Troubled Blood some of the things that I think for young women are still very important. What do I really want? How do I – how do I reconcile a job with a family? Do I want a family? You know, that is a question Robin is now really asking herself. Having assumed for years that she probably would have children with her ex-husband.
I think we are now seeing that she’s chosen a very different path and when she said to Strike in Troubled Blood, I am not sure if I want children, I can’t see how I do this job and have children, I think we are now seeing that come to fruition. I cannot imagine Robin, the character, taking these kinds of risks if she knew there were children at home. So, she is now struck off in a direction she never could have taken if she had remained in her – in her marriage.
If I were to hire a private detective, I have to say truthfully, I wouldn’t want one or the other. I would want both of them. Honestly, because I think they – the reason they work so well professionally together, and Strike particularly acknowledges this – he has the longer investigative history. And you often see him wishing that Robin were present, because he is aware that he – you know, he is a large man, he looks naturally grumpy.
Robin has that emotional intelligence that sometimes he lacks. And they do – for the first time in The Ink Black Heart – they really do play good cop, bad cop quite deliberately. And that scene for me is a – is a bit of a – it is a cathartic scene because now you are really seeing how well they work together. And they do it brilliantly. I think he is – except his private life where he is not level-headed and a bit of an idiot – but professionally I think he’s very efficient, calm, measured.
Robin is a little bit more – I’m not going to say reckless, but she is a little bit more spur of the moment in this book. She takes some quite daring decisions. Which work out. But, of course, they couldn’t – they might not have done. So, I have some sympathy for Strike at least on one occasion, saying, What the hell were you doing? But there you are.
The reason I love writing those two characters so much is I love them both as characters. And I love the friendship. I love writing – and of course I love writing the sexual tension, which I know is – is a big deal for certain readers. But my feeling was always that each of them had quite a lot of changing and growing to do. Even Strike who is 10 years older than Robin.
You know, his – his past is an unusual one. And it has left him with issues that I don’t think he has ever really fully explored. And I feel that in books five and six, this being book six, you start to see him recognising some of this. He has still got a way to go. Equally, Robin, who’s had, you know, not a particularly typical romantic history because of – she has trauma in her past – in this book really does get to show a quite – what I think readers might find quite an unexpected side of her.
So, I love – I love the fact – to me it is a real friendship, they do – they rub – they can occasionally infuriate each other. But they are very complementary personalities, I think. And they – their shared endeavour is really – is at the absolute root of what they value in each other and what they – I think now in this book, particularly at the end when something quite symbolic happens, you see that they recognise that they couldn’t have done it without each other. And that’s – you know, that’s a wonderful feeling when you – when you have a shared endeavour with someone, and I empathise with that a lot.
I think those two characters have changed or evolved a lot since the first book. Deliberately, obviously, because that’s – this is what I hope to do. I hoped to show people changing and growing and learning. That is what is interesting about human beings – that they do that. So, in book one, Robin really was heading for a very conventional life. Excited to be sent to a detective agency because she had always had this secret interest and perhaps even ambition. But that was derailed by what happened to her at age 19.
And so, she was not quite a starry-eyed innocent, but she was – because even then we saw this is a very resourceful person, this is an organised person, this is someone who clearly would like to explore this life. But I think you could see in book one that she couldn’t have – she couldn’t have it all. She couldn’t maintain that engagement and that particular husband and live the life that she was increasingly drawn to. So, now we are really seeing Robin quite liberated. That is not to say her life is straightforward because in this book her life is not straightforward. And she realises something about herself in this book that is a real shock to her.
Strike, meanwhile, when we met him – the change is equally great – when we met him, he was pretty much hours out of a very long relationship. Really trying to make his way in the world and not successful. You know, barely clinging on to – to his office. And what I – one of the things I love about Strike is – in fact, it’s – I think it was the only thing I told Tom Burke when he started to play Strike, so I wasn’t hugely helpful, but I said to him, You know, he’s never self-pitying. And I took that very much from – I have known a few veterans and one of my oldest friends is a veteran. And I have never heard self-pity from one of them even though some of them have been through unspeakable trauma.
I do know exactly what is next for Strike and Robin. So, I am currently quite deep into book seven, which again is a very different plot. And I have plotted books eight and nine. So, I know – I do know exactly where we are going. It’s – and the reason I have done that actually is not so much for the investigations – although I have plotted the investigations – but it is for the relationship. I need to know certain key things happen. And that just gives it that nice sort of emotional rhythm.
And I want to make sure that they happen in the right place and in the right context. And just for me, it is just satisfying for me. And I know a lot of readers are very interested in the relationship. Indeed, I had a woman tweet at me the other day: To be honest I wasn’t interested in – in the investigation I just wanted to find out about – about Strike and Robin. And you put so much, so many hours into constructing these clues and red herrings and you think, Maybe I should just write them as a romance novel. But I am not going to, and I just want to emphasise that now to all the people who wanted that. Like because I don’t want to do that.
I was looking for – the antagonist in the novel, you are not quite sure – are they a fan, which they purport to be initially, are they pretending to be a fan for other reasons, are they actually someone who knows the woman they are persecuting personally, which they appear to do because they have a lot of private information about her? So, I was looking for the kind of property that might plausibly attract someone like that.
And one night at dinner I lightheartedly said to my two teenagers, What would you say is the most toxic fandom? And to my amazement they named a popular cartoon. And I said, You are kidding me. Because I had watched that cartoon, it’s very funny. And they said, Trust us. So, I went and looked, and I thought this is absolutely perfect for my purposes. Although the cartoon within my book is – could not be more dissimilar from the – from the cartoon that my children named to me.
But, yeah, it was perfect because the – I think these sorts of animations and these – something about an animation, a cult animation – I think you can impose so many of your own ideas on it. There is just something about that medium. And I could see why that fandom became so febrile when I went and looked. And I thought, well, this is perfect. The other thing is I was originally planning to make The Ink Black Heart a comic strip. But I had done the world of publishing in the second Strike, The Silkworm. So, an animation felt like something new and different. It was good.
Well, the epigraphs in this book are all female poets of the Victorian era. So, as we may guess from where we are sitting to do this, Highgate Cemetery is a massively important location in this book. And it’s high Victorian. You know, it’s that very gothic – almost celebration of death. So, it’s a place of mourning but it’s a place of beauty and the epigraphs very much reflect a certain time.
They are all female because the – the client in the book is a woman. She is an animator. Yeah, I can’t give too much else away. But I will say that I also used Grey’s Anatomy, which was funny. I ended up reading all about the heart in Grey’s Anatomy. So, I have also taken epigraphs from Grey’s Anatomy and the construction of the heart itself. So, you know, it doesn’t take – you don’t have to be a genius to understand that this is – you know, when you are dissecting a heart and the book is called The Ink Black Heart, you can imagine it worked on many different levels.
I chose to do this investigation because I think I – in fact, I know – I have been planning this particular plot from three books ago. And I wanted it to follow Troubled Blood which I knew was going to be a cold case. Because I wanted to do something much more contemporary and even though it’s set in 2015 as I say – and the internet was in a slightly different place in 2015.
It was very interesting looking back at it. Particularly YouTube which appears in the novel. Which – YouTube was – was a little bit more Wild West back in 2015. It’s become a little more – not regulated, but I think that you couldn’t get away with what one of the characters is doing on YouTube now. But you could have done in 2015. So, all of that was fascinating and I just wanted to – I wanted to go into a very – with all of the Strike books I really begin with what kind of plot I want to write this time. And I like them to be very, very different.
So, this – this case is different in two ways. Firstly, everything happens in the moment because they are observing suspects while they are also watching social media because obviously, they can exclude suspects if they aren’t currently tweeting or, you know, writing on Instagram or whatever it might be. But the other reason is they turn the client down initially. So – and – so, there is emotional baggage for Robin because she deeply regrets turning the client down in the first place.
And always, previously, they have taken pretty much every client who comes. But now they are very busy. And yeah – so, it’s – the case starts in a different emotional place, I suppose.
Themes in the novel
The Ink Black Heart is mainly set in 2015. What was the online world like then and how much has it changed?
Well, I – I found it really interesting to look at where – where various social media platforms were in 2015 compared to where they are now. In some cases very little changes. You know, so – but one of the things I found interesting, for example the word ‘incel’ which now – which for those who don’t know means involuntarily celibate. And, you know, some people would declare themselves ‘incels’ and there’s – it is a word that is used when talking about, I suppose, a male online culture. Looking back – although that word is now fairly widely known online, in 2015 it wasn’t. And I had to constantly sort of check what – what language I am using that now people would understand compared to, you know, six, seven years ago.
Another thing that has definitely changed is YouTube. So, in the book we have a – one character who is a YouTuber and back in 2015 I think YouTube was far more – it was a little bit more Wild West than it is now. So, the things that my character – my fictional YouTuber – is saying on YouTube probably would have – he probably would have got away with it in 2015. I don’t think he would anymore. I think there is a little bit more scrutiny on the kind of content that’s coming out there.
So, it’s – some of it is subtle. But it was really fascinating to me to look back and watch what has happened in that – in those online spaces. I have been keeping an eye on a lot of different platforms and so on. And just getting to know subcultures has been fascinating.
And one online culture, Tumblr online culture – there is an aspect of Tumblr culture that is very much in this book. Tumblr for those who don’t know is a microblogging site, so you are just posting short pieces or reposting short pieces or screenshots that other people have posted. And spoony culture was something I really became familiar with on Tumblr. Which is about sickness, which of course is one of the overarching themes of the book.
I can’t say too much because it gives quite a lot away. But all of that is fascinating to me. And watching it evolve has been fascinating because I have been planning this book for quite a long time. So, I actually – I was watching these spaces a lot earlier than, you know, a couple of years.
Do I have a thing about birds? I do have a bit of a thing about birds. I – there is a lot of bird symbolism in this book. Which was – which was conscious, obviously. Birds have an association of messenger, you know, in lots of cultures. And I was playing a lot with the idea of inspiration. You know, you are – many people, me included, find their own source of inspiration quite perplexing. You know, I can’t honestly say where some ideas came from. They just came.
And so, I love the idea of – of bird messengers. They are also creatures of omen, you know, across most cultures you have an idea of something ominous. And that – that would apply to this book. And there is also the image which has always fascinated me of the pelican in its piety which is some – a heraldic device you often see on shields and so forth. And that device is used on one grave in the cemetery. And I refer to that grave in this book. In fact, I use that image twice in the book. And to me, although it obviously has other – the pelican in its piety is plucking its own breast to shed blood, to feed its chicks.
And it does sometimes feel like you’re – you know, you are shedding a bit of blood, I suppose. So, you know, it worked for me on all sorts of different levels. Comic as well. But yeah, there are a lot of birds in this book, I know that. But I was aware of it. I haven’t – it wasn’t an accident.
So, I think sickness is probably the overarching theme of the whole book. In many different ways. Sickness in lots of different senses. On the most prosaic level Strike in this book really does reach a kind of reckoning with his own – with his own body, you know; he is a disabled man. He’s an amputee. And he hasn’t been looking after himself and he’s – he eats fast food and he is overweight, and he knows this. And he makes vague resolutions and we have seen this throughout the series.
And he never keeps any of them. And in this book, he really does sort of hit a brick wall. I cannot continue doing this job unless I make some changes. So, that is very important to the book, and it is important to the plot that Strike at times is incapacitated. But there is sickness in lots of other different senses. Spoonie culture which is almost a – where people’s identity really becomes enmeshed with their illnesses, mental or physical.
And then there’s anomie which in itself is a kind of malaise, a kind of societal sickness where people feel very disconnected, isolated and don’t feel connected to social norms or ethical norms. Which we would see on – in the internet. I mean, the – not all of the internet, of course. Because people can make beautiful friendships online and it can be a very, I think, positive space. But I think it is also undeniable that in the virtual world you do see the consequences of people feeling alienated and isolated. And finding less healthy ways of dealing with that.
So, one of the key parts of Strike and Robin’s investigation is to get inside an online game. Within which everyone is anonymous. It is compulsory to be anonymous within the game. But the antagonist they are trying to expose co-created this game and is always in there. So, it is important for them to get in there. And then within the game you have – you have chats between various players. That the reader can read even before Strike and Robin get in there.
So, we the reader, we start getting an idea of who these people are from the sometimes limited information that they are putting out under guise of anonymity. Keeping track of that was fine. But it was a – it was fine – I – I never lost my – my – my bearings with – between all the different chats. But formatting the book – it’s been the most complex formatting job I think of any of our lives. So, I – I hope – but I do believe that when the reader gets to it it will be nice and clear. But the formatting has been extraordinarily complicated.
I don’t ever let fans or readers influence what I am going to write. I just don’t. And I think if readers have their way Strike and Robin would have jumped into bed together about four books back. But I always had this sort of journey planned for them. So, I am sorry, I am sticking to my plan. So, no, I suppose the answer is no. But I do genuinely – I mean, I love – I love getting feedback. And I – I even love hearing – I really love hearing, When are they going to get together? Because that shows that readers are engaged and – and love the characters as much as I do. So, you know, I love it. Although I think fans of that aspect of the books will get certain rich content in this one.
I have never created a book – and this book certainly isn’t created from my own experience – you know, with a view to talking about my own life. That doesn’t mean, of course, that your own life experience isn’t in the book.
With this book – I had been planning this book for so long and then a couple of the things that happen in this book have since happened to me. And so, I would like to be very clear that I haven’t written this book as an answer to anything that happened to me. Although I have to say when it did happen to me, those who had already read the book in manuscript form were – are you clairvoyant? I wasn’t clairvoyant, I just – yeah, it was just one of those weird twists. Sometimes life imitates art more than one would like.
But, no, it’s not – this isn’t about my experience of – as being a creator. My experience – if I wrote about my experience as a creator, it would look very different. And I have to say, for example – which I think will be a question readers would ask: the Potter fandom, by and large, has been amazing to me. Incredibly supportive and I still receive tonnes of love from the Potter fandom. So, the fandom in this book is very much not a portrait of the fandom. It is of a very – I think a very different kind of fandom.
Strike on TV
My experience of the TV show – and obviously I am an executive producer and I work with the – well, I work – when I say I work with Tom Edge who has written most of them, you know, he is doing the writing. He is doing the hard work. But I do have some input. And I can honestly say it has probably been one of the most – the happiest collaborations of my life. It’s – it’s been pure joy. It’s really, really been wonderful. I really love the show.
And the lead actors are phenomenal. And also just really nice people. Everything – everything works just beautifully. So, yeah, I love it. Long may it continue. You know, I really – we have just finished filming Troubled Blood. And I am about to watch the fourth episode as it is being put together. So, yeah, there is more to come. Which I am happy about because I am a fan of the show.
Part of the thing that I love about world building, which obviously I did in a very extreme way with the Potter series – but I also do with the Strike series and in this case the world building is the backstory and it’s the other characters they know and meet along the way and who remain constant. So, I think readers definitely like Shanker, who is Strike’s – one of Strike’s oldest friends. And they have known each other since they were teenagers.
And they have had very different life paths. Because Shanker has been in and out of prison for a long time. And I still haven’t told everyone his real name, which I do actually know. But that is because I want it to come at a certain point in the series. Oh, yeah, I love Barclay. Barclay is a Scottish subcontractor that – who joins the agency sort of halfway through the series. And – so far – and – I really like Barclay.
And he’s one of the few characters that I have ever created who is based on a living model. He’s based on a Glaswegian friend of mine. And – very similar sense of humour. And my Glaswegian friend is a very clever man who – who has lot of pockets of strange knowledge. He is just one of those very bright people who – you trip over sort of certain subjects with him, and he knows a ridiculous amount [about] it.
In this book, we get a new subcontractor – two new subcontractors, both of whom I really like. And who will be staying. So, that is Dev and Midge. So, for the first time Robin is no longer the only woman at the agency. Which is fun.
And then, of course, I have to mention Pat. So, Pat is the office manager who arrived in Troubled Blood. And she is staying. And Pat has some pretty big stuff in this book. And I just – I love her, I love writing this older woman who is – you know, was not born to be in this particular world. But she’s – she’s become really quite invaluable to the agency by this time. So, I love Pat.
I never think of the TV show when I am writing the novels. And I don’t – I don’t see Tom and Holliday in my head. I still see the characters as I imagined them when I started writing. And I am absolutely fine if readers are visualising Tom and Holliday, you know, I am – that’s absolutely fine. You know, they play them so beautifully. But I think for the creator it is different. I still see the characters as I initially imagined them.
And also, I now know Tom and Holliday as human beings. So, it is quite hard for me to put these two people that I know and really like into those – this fictional world because I know them away from the character. So, yeah, it doesn’t really – no, as I say, I am quite tunnel visioned, I have got my vision and I am not going to be deflected by things like that.
So, Highgate Cemetery is absolutely key in this book. Firstly, because the fictional cartoon is about Highgate Cemetery. So, it is kind of – quite a gothic, strange cartoon that has attracted a cult following. And then it gets bigger and bigger.
But I was also interested in it as a symbol of a very, very different age. So, this is high Victorian, very gothic, beautiful, strange – the Victorians, I think, had a very different – certainly a very different attitude to death. And in some way, I think a healthier attitude towards death.
It was accepted as something that was likely to happen, likely to come, and there were quite ornate rituals around grief. You know, you were going to wear black for quite a long time and – I am not saying I want us all to walk around in widow’s weeds – but at the same time acknowledging loss and even being able to show that you are grieving, I think – which remains in many cultures – but it’s really disappeared from our particular culture – I think there can be value in that.
You know, you are signalling to someone that you have lost – have lost someone important to you. And that is not necessarily an unhealthy thing. So, I think we maybe look at somewhere like Highgate Cemetery from our current age and think, well, it’s maudlin or mawkish or a bit odd. Almost a deification – a romanticisation of death. And there is – that is certainly in Highgate Cemetery. And I was also interested in the Victorian age as exemplified by the cemetery, in terms of connection and structure in life.
Now, there are many, many things that were bad about Victorian society and we could spend a day or two listing them. At the same time, I am examining the disconnect of the modern world and why people go into a virtual world possibly to find validation, friendship, connection and even status. And the Victorians were very aware, I think, of all of those things. And I think it would have been in certain classes difficult to feel anomie. This disconnect. But, of course, that really is where the concept of anomie began. Because industrialisation came along, and people were given jobs in which it was hard to feel a great sense of pride because you were – you were almost being treated as part of a machine. So, it was just this really nice juxtaposition of a very Victorian place that has so many meanings to me, and I think to everyone who would visit, and our current age which is so very different.
So, the North Grove Art Collective is – is a very important place in this book. So, you have got, I suppose – I don’t want to give too much away – but quite an eccentric owner, to say the least. And it is a place where artists and creatives can live free or next to free in this big, ramshackle house in Highgate. So – the fictional place is very close to the cemetery.
No, I have never been in anywhere quite like North Grove myself. So, it really is fictional. It is an invention, but I took little bits of places I may have known and – not necessarily people I have known, but places I have been to create North Grove. But I would say it is 90 per cent pure invention. But some life experience went in there as well. And I don’t want to say anything further because of what happens at North Grove Art Collective.
One of the great pleasures of this series for me is London. Writing about the London that I know. So, although I am not a Londoner – I have lived here – I lived here when I was young, and I have always had family in London. So, when I was a child, I would visit London regularly to visit family.
I tend to – I don’t use locations often that I know particularly well because otherwise it would be – it wouldn’t be exciting; it wouldn’t be a truthful portrait of London. Because London has changed a lot as well since I was living there in my 20s. So, yeah, part of the pleasure is exploring London. Plotting and thinking, well, that would be good if that happened there and then I am going to have to go visit there to really understand what is there. Because it will be changed since I was in my 20s.
So, yeah, that’s a huge part of the pleasure of these – these books. And they have led me to parts of London that I would not have visited, you know, in my normal visiting my publisher or, you know, coming down to visit – a friend in London. Yeah – oh, there is so much I want to say. But I shall merely say that I – in this book particularly there are places – parts of London and of the southeast that I am not familiar with, and I became familiar with, and it was just so pleasurable.